By Marcy Stamper
The Okanogan County Planning Commission voted by a 3-2 margin to approve the county’s plan covering development and protections along lakes and rivers, but the Methow’s representative is concerned the plan could tarnish the landscape and restrict access to shorelines.
At their meeting on March 23, the commissioners directed the planning department to make minor changes to the Shoreline Master Program (SMP) and then send it to the county commissioners. But Dave Schulz, who represents the Methow Valley on the planning commission, said he voted against moving the plan forward because of concerns that the working draft of the plan allows the creation of lot lines — and therefore fencing — all the way to the water’s edge.
That would be a change from the county’s existing SMP, which prohibits construction within 200 feet of a lake or river.
“I’m not opposed to lot lines, but to fencing,” said Schulz. “They’re fencing me out of the river, when state law entitles me to river access.”
Schulz is especially concerned that fencing areas adjacent to rivers would interfere with wildlife migration. He pointed to mesh fencing that has already been erected at a river restoration project just north of Twisp.
Habitat projects have their own permitting process, but Schulz was concerned that the plan could allow owners of waterfront property to fence the border between their land and neighboring lots,
“Is this what we’re going to do with the Methow River all the way to Pateros? How are the deer going to get through?” said Schulz.
Fencing was installed along the restored river channel to protect thousands of new plants from deer, according to Hans Smith, habitat biologist for the Yakama Nation Fisheries, who is overseeing the 1890s Side-Channel Restoration Project. While fencing is visible from the bridge over Highway 20, there is no fence under or next to the bridge, and large sections have been left unfenced to permit deer migration, said Smith.
The Yakama Nation Fisheries obtained an exemption from Okanogan County from the need for a shoreline development permit. Project plans include revegetation to restore wetlands and prevent the growth of noxious weeds.
Biologists understand that fencing creates visual and physical impacts and therefore plan it conscientiously, said Smith. The fencing, installed last fall, will be in place for three years while plants become established.
The SMP doesn’t address wildlife migration, so fencing near the shoreline is something of a gray area, said Lennard Jordan, a senior shoreline planner with the Department of Ecology, who has been advising Okanogan County on the update of its plan.
A fence cannot be constructed in the river, but can be erected up to the water, said Jordan. Nevertheless, it would be considered a form of development and would have to be regulated accordingly, most likely through the county’s zoning code or Critical Areas Ordinance, he said.
Fences for agriculture — usually intended to keep cattle out of waterways — are exempt from shorelines regulations, said Jordan.
The potential for new development along shorelines is not the only component of the draft plan that has generated concern. Provisions in the SMP that encourage public access to lakes and rivers have raised alarm from some landowners of waterfront property.
Because the state’s Shoreline Master Act directs local jurisdictions to give the public the opportunity “to enjoy the physical and aesthetic qualities of natural shorelines,” many people interpret that to mean the public could encroach on their private property.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about public access,” said Jordan. “Public access is a big idea and highly encouraged. But there is a common fear that a single landowner will be required to allow the public on their property, and that’s not correct.”
The state’s shoreline laws define public access in a number of ways, said Jordan. That can include visual access, or access for all residents of a new development — but not necessarily the general public.
Public access is one of three main components of shoreline plans, along with accommodating appropriate future development and protecting the environment, said Jordan.
A basic principle of the law is to promote the public’s right to access lakes and rivers while protecting property rights and public safety, according to Ecology’s shorelines handbook.
The SMP gives the county a framework to address public access when working with developers on permits for new projects, said Jordan. “Everything that’s on the ground now that’s legally established will not be touched by the SMP,” he said.
Some provisions of state law are less clear and not covered by the shoreline act, said Jordan. For example, while it would be trespassing for someone to enter private property above the ordinary high-water mark — say, to walk down someone’s driveway to the water — if access is below that mark, state common law tends to handle the question on a case-by-case basis, said Jordan.
The county is encouraged to create public access to waterways on existing public lands, said Jordan. Public access is not required at private single-family residences nor at smaller subdivisions. Exploring ways to create access is encouraged in future developments of four lots or more, according to Ecology.
Okanogan County has been working on the update of its SMP for 10 years. Like many jurisdictions around the state, the county has received several extensions to complete the task.
County planning staff are making the changes requested by the planning commissioners, but there is no date scheduled yet for the county commissioners’ review of the plan. Once the county commissioners sign off on it, the plan will be submitted to Ecology for final approval.
The draft plan and appendices, as well as the county’s existing SMP, are available at okanogancounty.org/planning.